The Gentleman’s Deception – Karen Tuft

THROUGH THE WİNDOW OF HER hackney carriage, Lavinia Fernley caught sight of the boisterous crowd that had gathered once again in front of London’s Orpheus Theatre. It was becoming a common occurrence these days: the curious onlookers, the young Corinthians and old roués who were her most ardent admirers, and the small congregation of people off to one side, holding hands and singing hymns. Today she’d worn a pale-pink muslin adorned with yards of delicate lace and a matching pelisse and fashionably tiny bonnet. The pink should have clashed horribly with her signature red locks but, instead, made for quite a dramatic picture, and the late afternoon sun would set her hair ablaze, she knew. This would be the last time any of these people saw Ruby Chadwick, The Darling of Drury Lane, and like any good actor, Lavinia intended to give them a truly memorable performance. The hackney driver, aware he’d had the privilege of escorting a celebrated personage to the theatre, adapted perfectly to his role. He jumped from his seat, made a show of straightening his dirty neckcloth, opened the carriage door, and dropped the steps. The crowd took a collective breath. Oh, but she would make them wait and allow the suspense to build. She stretched one gloved hand out the doorway and laid it on the driver’s arm and then allowed a single foot, clad in soft kid leather, to extend from beneath her petticoats to the step. “Ahh,” a few of the onlookers sighed. The group singing hymns sang louder. When she finally emerged on the top step of the hackney, she looked over the crowd, making sure to give eye contact to as many of them as possible, then turned her gaze to her now-smitten hackney driver and offered him a beatific smile. All watched, mesmerized, as she glided down the steps, nodded her thanks to the driver, and raised her parasol. “It’s her,” someone whispered.

“It’s Ruby Chadwick!” The name rippled through the crowd, creating a groundswell of both awe and derision. “Ruby, Ruby Chadwick. The Darling of Drury Lane.” “The actress who wears men’s clothes and shows her legs on stage.” “The incomparable beauty.” “The trollop.” Ah, yes. She’d heard it all before, and she was hearing it all again today. She took her time making her way through the crowd, which parted before her like the Red Sea before Moses. When she successfully reached the theatre door, she turned to face her audience.

Smiling demurely to admirers and haters alike, she lowered her parasol and raised her chin ever so slightly. “Thank you all for coming today,” she said in a low voice, expertly pitched to carry over the crowd. “You have blessed me more than you can ever know.” They had made her a fair amount of money, in fact. At the age of twenty-four, Lavinia Fernley, known by her stage name as Ruby Chadwick, had accomplished something most young ladies her age had not: in the three short years since she’d arrived in London, she had managed to become both a popular success and financially independent. Oh, there were plenty of young misses in London and elsewhere much wealthier than she, to be sure. Lavinia saw many of them in the audience of the theatre each night, but they undoubtedly had received their fortunes from their papas, not by using their own wits, as she herself had done. She could hear the theatre door being unlocked behind her, right on cue. She raised a hand in farewell to the crowd and stepped through the now-open door only to have it lock behind her again. Act 1, scene 1, and exit.

“Well, Ruby,” Alfred Hinchcliffe, owner of the Orpheus Theatre, said as he pocketed the keys to the door. “Once again, your many admirers have shown their devotion to The Darling of Drury Lane.” He rubbed his hands together in avaricious glee. “It’s always a good sign when the crowds gather, especially so large a crowd this late in the Season. Means money in the coffers. Ticket sales are still going strong.” “Speaking of which, Alfred, darling, you do remember you still owe me for last week’s receipts,” she said sweetly. “I keep a close account of things, you know.” “That I do, Ruby dear; that I do,” Hinchcliffe said. “Never met a better businessman than you, if you’ll pardon my expressing it in such a way to a member of the fairer sex.

” Alfred Hinchcliffe was as tightfisted a theater owner as there was, and she’d met many theater owners over the years, but he was always ingratiating with her since they both knew she was his golden goose. Lavinia patted his arm reassuringly. “We females do have our expenses. I would be happy as a lark if you were to bring me my share of the last week’s receipts. Perhaps you can save time and bring me my estimated share of this evening’s receipts as well.” She leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek, then went in for the kill. “I should so hate to fall ill with worry before tonight’s performance after waiting on edge all week for my earnings—you know what a sensitive nature I have,” she whispered. “This evening’s too, Ruby? You aren’t aiming to ditch me and run, are you?” He chuckled at his little joke. Lavinia raised a delicate eyebrow. “Fine, then.

” He sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.” “You really are a dear man, Alfred. You’re so good to me.” Maintaining her smile, barely daring to breathe, she watched him lumber toward his office, where he kept the safe that held the theatre’s revenue, and disappear inside. For three long years, she’d watched him like a hawk and used her wiles to make sure he didn’t cheat her out of her agreed-upon share of the receipts. Alfred was no fool—the crowds showed up to see the sensation that was Ruby Chadwick, and he knew it. He was no better and no worse than any of the men she’d encountered in her twenty-four years—as far as Lavinia was concerned, they were all greedy and unprincipled, to a man. Act 1, scene 2 was over. She had to keep up the pretense for only a few more hours, and then she would be free.

Ruby Chadwick, The Darling of Drury Lane, would vanish forever. And Lavinia Fernley, who’d been safely hidden away for the past three years, could emerge and live as she chose, away from the audiences and naysayers and ardent suitors. It all hinged on everything going as planned tonight, Lavinia reflected as she hurried to her dressing room—a few more such scenes that she must play, in addition to her performance onstage, before freedom was truly in sight. She needed all her wits about her if she were to be successful in those scenes. She must be more believable than ever if she was to have the life she’d always hoped —dreamed—of having. It would also take a miracle. Oh, please send a miracle, she prayed after she slipped inside the door and leaned against it, her eyes clenched shut, her hands clutched at her breast. * * * It was as if a curtain had fallen, Lucas Jennings thought as he watched his best friend, Anthony Hargreaves, the Earl of Halford, dance with his new countess. The end of a chapter, the conclusion of an act. He and Anthony had known each other at Cambridge.

Anthony, however, had earned his degree, while Lucas had left university after his first year, choosing to enlist in the infantry instead. It had been an impulsive decision, perhaps, but he’d had his reasons at the time. In the meantime, good fortune had eventually brought Lucas and Anthony together again. Anthony had achieved the rank of captain and had arranged for Lucas to be assigned to him as his personal assistant and valet. The arrangement had been beneficial to both men. Indeed, each had saved the other’s life on more than one occasion while fighting Napoleon in Spain. Anthony had been at death’s door earlier this very year, wounded after a night of battle in the town of Badajoz, Spain. Lucas had worked fiercely to keep him alive and then to help him recover from the nightmares resulting from the experience. It was gratifying to see him now, today, smiling at his good fortune of both health and happiness. Lucas had played a part in that and was not sorry he had delayed his own homecoming in an effort to first see Anthony whole again.

In fact, it had been a relief to stay in London with his friend, as it had allowed him to delay the inevitable. Now it was time for him to move on. Return home to his family, his parents and brothers and sisters and their families. He would begin his journey today. The wedding ceremony was over, and Lucas had eaten his fill at the banquet that had followed. His belongings were already packed. Anthony and his bride made their way to Lucas’s side. “I can see that you are keen to be on your way,” Anthony said with a twinkle in his eye. “Even from a fair distance, I can spot your restlessness.” “You are wrong, my friend.

If you see restlessness, it is only because you are now married to the most beautiful woman I know, and I am envious and determined to find such a prize for myself.” Amelia, the new Countess of Halford, laughed. “What a flattering rogue you are,” she said. “Actually, I believe a wife would do you a great deal of good.” She placed her hand on Lucas’s arm. “Oh, Lucas, how we will miss you.” “I won’t,” Anthony said. “I have found someone with whom I would much rather spend my time. She does not lurk in my dressing room or hover about me constantly, fretting if I am well or ill.” “I did not and do not hover,” Lucas said with mock indignation.

“Or fret. Not much, anyway. Only a bit, on the rarest of occasions. Besides,” he continued once Anthony and Amelia ceased laughing at his humorous confession, “I am leaving my friend in competent hands, milady, and for that I am grateful. I would hate to see all my good work go to ruin.” Anthony had been haunted by the specter of war, much more so than Lucas himself had been, and he had worried his friend may never recover. Lucas may have saved Anthony’s life, but Amelia had done much to heal his soul. “You make light of the situation, Lucas.” Amelia took both of Lucas’s hands in hers and looked him squarely in the eye. “In truth, I cannot imagine my life without Anthony, and I owe you a debt of gratitude I can never hope to repay.

” “Not at all, my dear,” Lucas replied gently. “You must promise me, if there ever comes a time when either of us can be of service, you will let us know,” she said. “I would do anything in my power for you, and Anthony feels the same. Don’t you, Anthony?” “It goes without saying, my love.” Lucas raised one of her hands and kissed it. “I shall remember that, milady, and thank you.” A guest who wished to congratulate the newly married couple interrupted them, which served to end the conversation. Lucas watched his friend a few minutes more, then discreetly left the banquet hall, trying to put the dread he felt at returning home out of his mind. He returned to his room and dressed in clothing suited for travel, tucked a couple shirts and clean changes of linen into his saddlebag, and rang for a footman. “Please have my horse readied and arrange for my trunk to be sent to the coaching inn at Stamford,” Lucas told the footman upon his arrival.

Stamford was a two-day journey north of London and a halfday’s ride from Alderwood, the Jennings’ family estate in Lincolnshire. The innkeeper could arrange to have his trunk sent to Alderwood from the inn. “Certainly, sir.” The footman hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder and excused himself. Lucas had written his parents, informing them he would be arriving sometime within the week, unwilling even now to commit to a specific day. It was foolish to be so reluctant to return home. He loved his family and truly wanted to see them again—and yet he was also loath to do so. One would think he was going into battle. Devil take it, but he’d gone into more than one battle in Spain with more enthusiasm than he was currently feeling. He eventually descended the staircase leading to the front hall, expecting to slip away unnoticed, having already said his goodbyes to Anthony and Amelia.

Before he could get away, Lady Ashworth, Anthony’s mother, hurried toward him. “Mr. Jennings! I have been waiting for you to come downstairs. I see that you are intending to leave us now, but it is nearly evening. You could just as easily stay the night and depart in the morning.” “Thank you, but I am determined to begin my journey today, milady. I have friends awaiting me.” He always had a friend or two—old army associates—in any number of pubs and taverns in Town and who were willing to pull up a chair for him, so it wasn’t an outright lie. If he stayed, he’d only be tempted to find more reasons to delay his return home. “At the very least, allow me to have Cook prepare some food for you to take with you.

” “You are kind to offer, but that won’t be necessary, I assure you.” “I wish there were some way I could thank you more fully,” she said. “You have done so much for my Anthony and for Ashworth and me too, by extension. I cannot do enough to show my gratitude.” “I did nothing he would not have done for me, ma’am. It was the nature of things, you see, and I was fortunate to be in a position to assist.” He bowed over her hand and turned to the door. The groom would have Hector prepared and waiting for him by now, and the horse wasn’t known for his patience. “Mr. Jennings.

” The marchioness’s voice was commanding, so Lucas immediately turned back to her. “I would have you know unequivocally that you always have an honored place with us in our home.” He nodded his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you, Lady Ashworth.” “See that you remember it.” “I shall, ma’am.” And that was that—the end of a chapter, a very large chapter in Lucas’s life. There had been a certainty that had come with serving in the military, beyond the variables thrown at them by the weather and the enemy. An order of command. Structure.

A sense of purpose. This new chapter in his life was a blank slate. There was opportunity, yes, but at present Lucas could see only uncertainty and unfulfilled expectations, with the barest glimmer of optimism. He felt oddly like the poor chaps who volunteered to be the first to charge during battle. The forlorn hope, they were called, and not without reason. There was nothing for it now, however, but to move forward and write his destiny as best he could. “Time to go, old friend,” Lucas said to Hector as he secured his saddlebag and patted the horse’s neck before hoisting himself into the saddle. “Time to face our future.” He took Hector at an unhurried pace away from Ashworth House and on through the streets of London. It was dusk, and the grayness of the atmosphere around him matched his mood entirely.

He eventually found himself in front of White’s club and could see several gentlemen of his acquaintance through the large bow window. Lucas, however, had not become a member, despite being the son of a viscount. Such things had not been foremost on his mind as a youth when he’d enlisted in the army, and during the past few weeks, while he’d been back in London, he’d been more concerned about seeing to Anthony’s health than socializing. Other than making arrangements for a basic wardrobe and the occasional night out with old army friends, he’d done little else. The scene through the window at White’s left Lucas feeling even more melancholy, so he rode Hector several blocks north to the Hissing Goose, a local pub he’d visited on a few occasions, to fortify himself before continuing on his way. Dusk had descended into full darkness now, with only the occasional streetlamp offering a weak respite from the gloom. Upon entering the pub, Lucas immediately saw Sir Michael Foresby, with whom Lucas had a passing acquaintance, playing cards with a few of his friends. “Jennings, well met. Come join us,” Sir Michael said with a welcoming gesture. “You look to be ripe for the plucking this evening.

” Lucas picked up the ale the barman had poured and wandered over. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m only here for a quick drink before continuing north.” “North, eh?” the fellow to Sir Michael’s left said. “Had your fill of the debutantes and their meddling mamas, have you?” He laughed as though he’d made a tremendous joke. “Returning home from an extended vacation in Spain,” Lucas said. “Ah,” another fellow, a man named Harris, said. “Been off fighting the Corsican, then. Well done. Join us, sir, do. The next drink is on me.

” He gestured to an open space at the table. “A few hands and some agreeable company before you go on your way, eh?” “Rumor has it you’ve been hidden away at Ashworth House since returning from the Continent,” Sir Michael added. “Since you’ve waited this long to return home, a few rounds of cards won’t make much of a difference, will they?” Lucas sat, banishing the thought that he was procrastinating once again, and he sent the accompanying guilt along with it. One of the men at the table proceeded to collect the cards and shuffle them, dealing to Lucas along with the others. “It’s fortunate you and your money came along,” another gentleman said as he studied his cards with an inscrutable face. “I’ve won nearly all my friends can afford to lose. Are you in?” “I’m in.” Lucas tossed a few coins on the table. The men got down to the serious business of card playing, and Lucas won and lost right along with them. “You’ve got the luck tonight, Jennings,” another fellow, Pinckney by name, said.

“I daresay you’re a few quid richer than you were when you entered the Hissing Goose a few hours earlier.” A few hours? Lucas checked his pocket watch. Blast, it was later than he’d realized.

.

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